Delaware trooper from Moldova reveals how she assimilated
OCEAN VIEW, Del. (AP) — Irina Celpan’s first trip to Walmart didn’t quite go as expected.
When she arrived in the United States in the summer of 2012 as a J-1 student, everyone told the Moldovan native that the retail giant was the place to go if she needed to buy anything.
Thinking it must be like a mall, she and a close friend jumped on their bicycles for a two and a half hour ride to a Rehoboth Beach Walmart before Celpan realized, “No, that’s definitely not what I expected.”
Now as a state trooper, it’s one of the many pieces of advice she’s passing on to J-1 students in Delaware’s beach towns: “That was lesson No. 1 that I learned, to get more informed next time.”
Celpan attended events in May and June with the Bethany Beach and Ocean View police departments to share her personal experiences with incoming students and teach them about ways to stay safe during their summer abroad.
Not only is she able to connect with them because she’s shared many of the same experiences they’ll be going through as J-1 students, but being fluent in Russian and Romanian, she’s able to talk to many of them in their native language.
As a state trooper, Celpan said she’s been quick to jump in and respond to incidents this summer involving J-1 students because she’s able to give them an opportunity to tell their side of the story and be understood.
“They should not be afraid to come to us, to ask for help, to explain what exactly happened because they think that if something happens to them, it’s their fault, which is not the case, and that was my message to them,” she said.
The U.S. Department of State’s J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program website shows Delaware was host to 2,272 J-1 students in 2017, with more than 1,700 participating in the popular Summer Work Travel program like Celpan did.
Ocean View Police Chief Kenneth McLaughlin said the department’s outreach efforts with J-1 students really began in 2006 when it started noticing an uptick in the number of foreign students flocking to Delaware’s beaches.
More and more, he said officers were making contact with J-1 students because they were the victims of traffic collisions or crimes, and they decided it was time to do something to support this “vital part of the local seasonal workforce.”
Now, more than a decade since the department’s effort to make these connections began, he said having Celpan with officers as they met with foreign students this summer has continued to contribute to a positive experience.
“Some of these folks, they come from countries where the police are actually feared in some cases and the police don’t do outreach and do community policing,” McLaughlin said. “It was just a great opportunity to interact with these folks.”
After graduating high school in 2010, Celpan went to college where she heard from many of her peers about what it was like to go to America and make extra money.
Realizing that a dollar in the United States would be worth more in Moldova — an Eastern European country of about 3 million residents — she said it was an opportunity she was very interested in.
“I spoke to my parents and due to financial problems we had in my family, my parents decided to allow me to experience how it is to make money in a different country and get more comfortable with people, learn English,” she said.
Having taken French classes in high school, Celpan didn’t know any English when she first went to Work & Travel USA, the company that worked with her to arrange her trip to the United States.
The company put her through basic English classes that taught her how to answer easy, key questions that she would be asked during the interview for her visa.
In May 2012, she arrived in Delaware to start working as a cashier at a Valero gas station on Route 26 in Bethany Beach.
“My first day I was so nervous,” Celpan said. “I did not know how to say to my manager that I can’t, I don’t know English.”
She was lucky, however, to have a manager who understood her and was willing to work with her on adjusting to her new job. She said she spent her first two weeks simply getting comfortable with the store by cleaning, stocking shelves and working in the back.
Though it wasn’t easy work, Celpan said that at the time she preferred it to interacting with customers and trying to understand what they wanted.
Eventually, she asked for permission to start manning the cash register, which she said was difficult, especially when customers would ask for products kept behind the counter that she didn’t know much about.
“I don’t smoke so I’m not very familiar with the cigarettes, and they kept telling me to the left, to the right, up, down, and that was the only way I could provide whatever they needed,” she said in accented English.
Working at Valero covered the costs of the program, Celpan said, but to get extra spending money, she did what many J-1 students do, took on a second job. She started working at Tim’s Aloha Stand on the boardwalk where she sold shaved ice.
Her ultimate goal was to earn enough money throughout the summer to be able to buy a new cellphone, a laptop and clothes.
“That was all what I wanted, and I used to work crazy hours,” Celpan said. “I remember I had only two days off that summer and my first day off, I had it only because I had to go to sign up for my social security number.”
Growing up, Celpan said she was always interested in a career in law enforcement because she had a desire to help people in need.
She initially decided to apply to be a police officer back home in Moldova, but was turned away because of her gender and size.
She knew the only way she could join the police force was either to already know someone who was working in the department or ask her parents for the money to buy a spot, so she went to school to study accounting instead.
As a J-1 student, Celpan said one of her earliest interactions with law enforcement was being stopped by Delaware State Police troopers who were handing out bicycle lights.
“I was very impressed of how the Delaware State Police cared for us, cared about people,” Celpan said. “It wasn’t what I used to see back home.”
In August 2015, she started pursuing an associate degree in criminal justice through Delaware Technical and Community College in Georgetown where she took advanced English classes and completed the English as a Second Language program during her first semester.
She graduated in 2017 with a 4.0 grade point average and the Outstanding Student Award after spending her final semester in the Law Enforcement Option program, which is a partnership with the Delaware State Police Training Academy that prepares students to be competitive applicants for law enforcement careers.
“Being surrounded by instructors that retired from either Delaware State Police or some other municipal departments, they all encouraged me to not give up because I was that student right in front of them, always had questions and I was always in everything,” Celpan said.
Many of those same instructors encouraged her to pursue a career with state police because she was fluent in multiple languages.
Since completing the training academy in February, her language skills have come in handy more than once in her time with Troop 4 in Georgetown.
Recently, Celpan assisted with a vehicle collision in Rehoboth involving a pedestrian. The victim was a J-1 student who spoke Russian, but not much English. Though Celpan wasn’t able to be there in person, she talked to the student over the phone.
“That was one of those moments when my ability of speaking Russian helped me to make contact with this student and get her information and her side of the story,” she said. “It felt very good that somehow she felt comfortable with me.”
Celpan attended her first Foreign Safety Seminar with the Bethany Beach Police Department May 30.
She participated in two more in June as well as an International Student Picnic with the Ocean View Police Department where she interacted with more than 100 students from countries including Romania, Russia, Moldova, Belarus and Croatia.
The Ocean View Police Department’s outreach efforts have evolved greatly over the years, McLaughlin said. They’ve grown to include collaborations with other agencies and organizations on formal presentations, nighttime bicycle checkpoints and the annual picnic.
When he was contacted this year by one of the event’s organizers to talk about sending officers to meet with students, McLaughlin said he immediately thought of Celpan.
“It’s a great asset that we have locally now with the state police hiring somebody with her background and her particular language skills because she can really relate to these folks and help out with some of the interpreting if needed,” he said.
In talking with students during these events, Celpan said she was was able to tell them about the mistakes she made and the challenges she faced during her first summer in the United States as well as answer their questions.
“I got to speak with some students in Romanian,” she said. “Some of them were ashamed to ask questions in front of everyone so they approached me after the meeting and they asked me additional questions.”
One of her major pieces of advice was for students to go to a bank as soon as possible and open an account.
It’s something no one had mentioned to her during that first summer so she kept her savings in cash at home until someone stole from her.
“Don’t be afraid. If you lose your debit card, you can always go back to the bank, freeze your account and get another card. That way your money is safe,” Celpan said.
She also encouraged students to stand up for themselves in the workplace and not allow others to take advantage of them.
She said she was often taken advantage of at her second job on the boardwalk because she didn’t speak English well.
Though she was supposed to be responsible for the shaved ice, Celpan said she was regularly told to perform other employees’ jobs on top of her own and didn’t know how or feel confident enough to say no.
Even if their English isn’t very good yet, she told students not be afraid to speak up if they feel they’re being treated unfairly.
“It does not matter in which language you say it,” she said. “There will always be someone that will speak your language or at least understand it.”
Most importantly, Celpan said she wanted the meetings to send a message to J-1 students that police agencies are there as a resource for them.
A few weeks ago, she responded to a call for a fraud complaint. When she arrived to meet with the victim, it turned out to be a J-1 student who had been at one of the meetings Celpan had participated in.
She said someone had called him claiming he owed $3,000 to the IRS as well as fees. He paid $3,800 to the person who claimed to be an IRS employee and realized too late that it was actually a scam.
Even though telling him they might never be able to catch the person who’d stolen from him was difficult, she said he told her how much better he felt knowing that someone who understood his financial situation and came from a similar background had responded.
Because students may come from countries where the perception of police is different, she said she wants to help them feel less afraid of law enforcement, especially when they see a local officer or state trooper out on patrol.
“I know that I got your back and that was probably the most rewarding part of my job,” she said. “I get to be there especially for students that need help. Sometimes they just want to be heard. That’s it.”
Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/